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Central Valley’s Secret Menu is the Delicious Planet Vegan Burgers

IN THE March 7 ISSUE

FROM THE 2020 Articles,
andFood Fun,
andHealthy Eating in the Valley,
andSteven Sanchez
SECTIONS

by Steven Sanchez

In the culinary world, the term “secret menu” by definition is exclusive knowledge that’s unknown to the majority of the public. It is known only to those select few who are aware of certain items that are not on the everyday menu of their favorite eateries. It’s very much a VIP thing. Well, here in the Central Valley, there’s a secret menu of food out there from an establishment that is gradually gaining attention through word of mouth. Actually, no words need to be spoken; taste buds are speaking the loudest, and what they are saying is that the food truck, Planet Vegan Burgers, serves some of the best food in the area.

Imagine a delicious, juicy burger, melted cheese, sauce dripping down your fingers, one patty…just one? Make it two! All that heaven in one bite, and just to think, that handful of delight is…vegan? Yes, it doesn’t come from the flesh of a cow. It’s made from the Impossible brand that uses plant-based substitutes for meat products. They’re contributing to the newest trend in mainstream cuisine: veganism. The Economist predicted that 2019 would be the year of the vegan, according to a report from the Plant-Based Food Association (PBFA). PBFA has been working with the Good Food Institute, where they discovered that U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods have increased by 11 percent since 2018, making it a $4.5 billion industry; the plant-based meat category alone is worth more than $800 million.

Planet Vegan Burger

The floodgates have opened for this new deluge of information. It’s hard to avoid all the news about the nation’s health problems and side effects of a mostly meat and dairy diet. It’s no secret that America has been suffering with an obesity epidemic, and it’s continued to grow yearly. According to the CDC’s Behavioral Risk, Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), nationally 39.6 percent of adults and 18.5 percent of children were considered obese in 2015-2016. The American Cancer Society found that cancers fueled by obesity are on the rise among young adults in the United States and appearing at increasingly younger ages. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) serves as the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, and they’ve classified meat in general, and red meat in particular, as containing carcinogens, a substance that can cause cancer.

Another contributing factor to this country’s health decline has been through the consumption of meat with the “zombie deer disease” outbreak, which resulted in millions of pounds of meat products being recalled for E. Coli, salmonella, listeria, and allergens. A few weeks ago, over 2,000 pounds of ground beef were recalled due to plastic contamination that was classified as a Class II recall, which means “a health hazard situation where there is a remote probability of adverse health consequences from the use of the product.”

We have a solution to the problem. The 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee concluded, based on research from scientists at the EAT-Lancet Commission, that people who follow vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, or semi-vegetarian diets actually had a 12% lower mortality risk than people who are omnivores. There are celebrities who have endorsed this lifestyle and have become public ambassadors for it. Joaquin Phoenix (who mentioned veganism in his recent award speeches, including at the Oscars), Bill Clinton, Beyoncé, Natalie Portman, Ariana Grande, Venus Williams, Mya, Jessica Chastain, and many others have come out in favor of veganism. Fast food giants such as Burger King, Carl’s Jr., and Panda Express have already implemented vegan options on their menus. Starbucks just announced that they plan to provide more non-dairy milk drinks to help contribute to climate control. The documentary, The Game Changers, which is about how veganism can help enhance athletic performance, with testimonials by elite athletes, was made available on Netflix last year and became the best-selling documentary of all time on iTunes—within just a week.

But don’t let the statistics be the main factor; let the food do the talking. Your mouth will be so stuffed with Galaxy Fries (which is comprised of crosscut fries, vegan cheese, Impossible patty bits, and grilled onions, jalapeño aioli, your choice of sauce, cilantro, and green onions), that you won’t be able to speak. Planet Vegan is making it in an area that isn’t particularly known for veganism, because it has established itself in an agricultural Mecca based on dairy and meat farming. But that hasn’t deterred them from making an impact in the community and spreading the word about plant-based eating behind their rallying cry and hashtag #lettucesquashthebeef which they use on their social media. I caught up with chef and co-owner Robert January and we got to talking about the rise of the vegan phenomenon, defying stereotypes, the power of social media in getting their name out there, and how the power of food can bring people together.

Planet Vegan co-owner Robert January

KRL: So, what’s the story of how Planet Vegan Burgers came to be?

Rob: It started as an idea from my one of my college friends. I’ve known him for over 10 years and he went plant-based 18 months ago. He’s a vegan in Fresno. I’m the only [one] from the team not from here—I’m from LA—and when he was looking for good vegan junk food, instead of having to drive up and down the state looking for it, he gave me a call. We collaborated, and it came to light this year.

KRL: LA is known for being a vegan center. Then you came up here to put this thing together. Was it an easy transition from cooking plant-based food there, to coming up here?

Rob: Yes, it was. I’ve been cooking vegan food for about a year now. I have a friend that I helped out in the mix of what is called “the vegan capital” in Southern California, and learned there and incorporated that into when I came here.

KRL: There’s a lack of vegan options here in Fresno in comparison to LA. Was it tough trying to establish a business out here when this isn’t primarily known as a plant-based environment?


Rob:
Sometimes you’ve just got to gamble on yourself. When you know that a place has a lack of something, you take the risk of bringing in something they’re not used to. But if the food is good then the business should do well. Actually, the riskiest thing was being the only professional cook on opening day, with only friends and family volunteering—without training. So we’ve just been learning on the fly and growing.

KRL: Have you been surprised by the turnout so far?

Rob: Yes, definitely. It’s just been a blessing. It’s growing every day. It’s something that Fresno, Clovis, and the whole Central Valley needs and we’re proud to be one of the players out here providing vegan comfort food.vegan

KRL: From what you’ve seen, how important is geography and environment when it comes to food knowledge and access? The chances of being vegan in LA are way higher than here, so how much of a factor is location when it comes to dietary food knowledge and access? And how can Fresno change that?

Rob: We have to lead the way out here. Even though there are dairy and meat farms…we also produce almonds, fruits, and vegetables, not just locally but for the whole country. What better way to start conserving your resources, like water consumption, based on what you eat. Like you save 660 gallons of water by eating a quarter-pound vegan patty, and due to our previous drought, we can shift the mindset from using that [saved] water to feed animals just so we can eat them, and use it for something else. It starts with what you eat. Geography doesn’t matter much. From a business perspective, meeting that supply and demand for our out-of-town consumers can be tough, but overall, Fresno is a good place that can lead the way by being plant-based. It’s good food and you feel good after you eat it.

KRL: Veganism is a trend that is rising in popularity right now. Last year the industry made billions of dollars and it’s steadily growing. Your business is coming in at a time where it’s defying expectations and leaving a mark. Does that make you feel that you’re contributing to the movement in some way?

Rob: We’re minimalists, but in the grand scheme of things we’re happy to be a part of the plant- based family. We don’t look too far ahead; we’re just focused on growing and getting better as a business. We don’t put too much emphasis on it, but it does feel good knowing that we’re involved with it. Fresno has shown that they want more of this food out here. We can’t be the only ones. I mean, it would be good for business (laughs), but we do need more like us. Even for those who aren’t plant-based, they should at least try it. I know those that aren’t vegan slowly make changes, but supplementing certain foods with other things has an effect on people.

KRL: You’ve built your fan base through social media. How much has it helped, in your opinion?

Rob: Social media is cool because it’s new and exciting for people, especially those that have eaten plant-based food for the first time. When it comes to our marketing it’s our customers that are doing most of the advertising by providing the content, so we don’t have to do much. It’s all based on word of mouth. We don’t pay any outside parties for publicity; we do it all on our own. Our customers take photos and hashtag or tag us in the posts, and it out goes out there. So it has helped build our fan base. it’s built by the customers to attract more customers.

KRL: I’m Hispanic, you’re an African-American and so is all your staff, and I must say it’s tough being a person of color in the vegan world. When most people think of vegans they don’t have us in mind. Was it a struggle for you, not only as businessman, but as a person that you had to work twice as hard to fit into that world, to convince people that you operate a plant-based business?

Rob: It was harder at first, but it gets easier when you have a person with those misconceptions take a bite out of the burger. Then they tell people they know, and those people do the same, so that’s how it starts. It took those people who are not vegan to support us…who have been loyal to us. We’ve gotten great support from all over the community, but surprisingly it hasn’t been hard when the food is good. If it’s delicious, it doesn’t matter who made it or where it came from. Once you have it then it can change perspectives. Food breaks down the barriers and unites us all.

KRL: What are your future plans?

Rob: No restaurant for us at the moment, we like what we’re doing. Our goal is to have another truck to travel around the area so people can have more access to our food. There’s people who travel around just to come to whatever location we’re at to eat our stuff. We get a lot of love from Visalia. I’ve even heard folks saying they’ve driven from Sacramento or Pismo Beach to eat our food. A restaurant is just in one location, but you can’t serve other people from different areas who want your food. That’s the benefit of the truck; we like going everywhere in the Central Valley.

You can follow Planet Vegan, see photos, and see where they’ll be next on their Facebook and at www.instagram.com/planetveganburgers.

Steven Sanchez is a film graduate of UNLV. He’s a filmmaker, writer, photographer, and music manager. Obsessed with movies, comic books, and rock ‘n’ roll. A football fanatic, big fan of the Oakland Raiders. Enjoys reading and collecting vinyl records. If there’s a rock show in town more than likely he’ll be there. Loves his grandma’s home cooked meals. He has a twin sister and most people call him the pretty one. You can learn more about Steven on his YouTube channel and on Instagram @stevensanchez5807 photos and videos.

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